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The case for privatizing religion in Turkey

09.05.2012, Today’s Zaman

Ziya Meral

The recent decision by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to privatize state theaters has caused a wide stir.

While I do believe the state should provide funds for the arts, the state employment of actors and management of theaters were not about the arts but state control of the public and cultural space.

In fact, communist countries have always had a keen commitment to “supporting” the arts and to using them as an important vehicle to influence and control public imagination. Therefore, as painful it is for many in the industry who will lose their jobs, in the long run, the privatization of theaters will provide freedom and market competition necessary for better productions and performance by actors.

There is, however, an elephant in the room — a much larger, powerful state control mechanism: state regulation of religion. It is really no surprise that the newly founded Turkish Republic saw it vital to establish the Directorate of Religious Affairs and, through it, to regulate and manage the type of Islam it sought to enforce.

The directorate still consumes a giant slice of the state budget, employs all imams in the country and by and large still dictates particular readings of Islam. In the last few years, the official enforcement of a particular creed has been widely challenged and various groups who do not fit into that creed have argued for representation and funds from the directorate. However, these acts are not enough. The directorate must be decommissioned, just like state theaters.

There are two common worries regarding the decommissioning of the directorate. The first one comes from concerned secularist circles, which fear that an end to state regulation would open the floodgates of Islamism and all sorts of problems with religious groups. The second one comes from concerned conservative circles, which fear decommissioning the directorate would mean that clergymen and mosques would not receive funding to perform their duties and thus the practice of Islam would be harmed. As convincing as these concerns sound to their respective adherers, they are both wrong.

The problem with the secularist argument

The secularist argument is fundamentally flawed in its assumptions as to the nature of Islam and the social and political aspirations of a vast majority of Muslims in the country. Again and again, numerous studies have shown how the vast majority of Muslims in the country demand democracy, economic reforms and equality as well as freedom to live according to their conscience, not Shariah law or a return to some previous century.

Those who might fit into the Islamist or fundamentalist categories already have their own religious networks outside of state reach. Rather than enabling them to unleash an Islamization plan, the fast-growing contemporary Muslim civil society in the country would in fact minimize and challenge their appeal for those who feel alienated from the state. In other words, far from it, the end of the state market monopoly and the start of equal state distance from all religions and creeds will create a competitive market that will reward those religious actors who meet what the Turkish public demands, which is clearly reform, freedom and advancement alongside traditional values and personal piety.

The same implications apply to the conservative arguments, too, over what would happen if the state were to stop managing religion. Far from harming the practice of Islam, it would in fact free Muslims to live, think and worship freely and thus increase its vibrancy. Take for example state-managed Christianity in northern Europe, where the clergy is state-employed and churches receive state funds, versus the free-market religious competitions in which Christian churches find themselves in the US. While Christianity’s public appeal in northern Europe is in decline, this is not so in the US.

One of the key reasons behind this is that the clergy and churches in the US must work hard to provide for the needs of their congregations, as the survival of the church and the clergy depends on their congregations. They must also continually engage with social and philosophical developments and compete with other religious providers, as they cannot take the durability and public plausibility of their beliefs for granted.

In contrast, a clergyman in northern Europe will always be paid as long as he plays the sacramental role of being there and keeping the doors of the churches open, regardless of whether anyone attends the services. It is only thanks to migration and Islam in Europe that slowly northern European clergymen are finding themselves having to learn how to defend their faith and keep their role in society.

This is already observable in how energetic and increasingly influential various Islam-inspired civil society movements outside of state structures are. Obviously, the Directorate of Religious Affairs cannot simply close up shop. However, the creation of foundations that would accredit imams and allow citizens to donate money for their work would solve the problem. The process would be a long, complicated and difficult one. However, it would be the best thing to maintain both the secular nature of the country and the freedoms of Muslims and non-Muslims alike and to negotiate a healthy space for religion, politics and public life.

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